Don’t Believe Everything You Read

by Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

What do United Airlines, War of the Worlds, and the upcoming “massively-multiplayer forecasting game” Superstruct have in common? According to one of the game’s designers at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, more than you might think.

When I was in high school in the nineties, a friend of mine wrote an essay about how the Internet could never be a legitimate research tool because the majority of people are stupid enough to believe everything they read without verifying its validity. I couldn’t help but remember this the other day when reading about the Google/United Airlines fiasco in which the accidental resurfacing of a six-year-old news story about the airline’s flirtation with bankruptcy caused stock prices to plummet by 75%. Of course, the truth became clear fairly quickly and the stock recovered by the end of the day, so no harm done, right? Tell that to the people who sold their stock while it was near the bottom.

The United Airlines story might have simply been old rather than fake, but as the Superstruct designer mentioned above pointed out, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast is proof that something doesn’t have to be real to cause a panic. The key is just the right amount of plausibility. What if the mistaken posting of Steve Jobs’ obituary had stayed up long enough to affect stock trading? And if things like that can happen so easily by accident, then what’s to stop someone from throwing together a political/economic version of War of the Worlds in a malicious way?

The concern with Superstruct is that participants are supposed to document their future lives using different kinds of media, such as Twitter and YouTube… which could lead to passerby reading about “Police fir[ing] on secessionist demonstrators in Oregon” and thinking that it’s true. So here’s the question: was my high school friend wrong? Are people actually smart enough to parse out fact from fiction? What about the difference between reading a headline on Google news and reading a Twitter feed? What about Wikipedia? How do you decide what to believe?

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19 Responses to Don’t Believe Everything You Read

  1. When I was in college back in the early 1980s, one of the networks aired a docudrama about a terrorist takeover of a nuke equipped U.S. Navy ship in the harbor at Charleston, S.C. They were going to blow up and cause a nuclear holocaust. Every 15 minutes or so and with each commercial break they aired a disclaimer that the events were not real and that the docudrama was fictional. If you had half a brain, you would also recognize that none of the other channels were airing this major news event. The network was unheard of, none of the news anchors looked familiar etc. It still caused panic. As the Head Resident on duty at least one panicked student called me in fear that Boca Raton (where we were) would be impacted by the explosion or fall out. It took me 15 minutes to reassure the panicked student and even then he didn't seem to believe me. (Wonder what he'd been smoking that night.) So, yeah, I think people are to gullible for their own good.

    • I remember the same sort of thing! When I was in junior high there was something just like that about… an alien invasion, I believe? I remember something about a code from space. At the time I thought it was really cool. But yeah, there was a disclaimer like every five minutes.

  2. When I was in college back in the early 1980s, one of the networks aired a docudrama about a terrorist takeover of a nuke equipped U.S. Navy ship in the harbor at Charleston, S.C. They were going to blow up and cause a nuclear holocaust. Every 15 minutes or so and with each commercial break they aired a disclaimer that the events were not real and that the docudrama was fictional. If you had half a brain, you would also recognize that none of the other channels were airing this major news event. The network was unheard of, none of the news anchors looked familiar etc. It still caused panic. As the Head Resident on duty at least one panicked student called me in fear that Boca Raton (where we were) would be impacted by the explosion or fall out. It took me 15 minutes to reassure the panicked student and even then he didn’t seem to believe me. (Wonder what he’d been smoking that night.) So, yeah, I think people are to gullible for their own good.

  3. When I was in college back in the early 1980s, one of the networks aired a docudrama about a terrorist takeover of a nuke equipped U.S. Navy ship in the harbor at Charleston, S.C. They were going to blow up and cause a nuclear holocaust. Every 15 minutes or so and with each commercial break they aired a disclaimer that the events were not real and that the docudrama was fictional. If you had half a brain, you would also recognize that none of the other channels were airing this major news event. The network was unheard of, none of the news anchors looked familiar etc. It still caused panic. As the Head Resident on duty at least one panicked student called me in fear that Boca Raton (where we were) would be impacted by the explosion or fall out. It took me 15 minutes to reassure the panicked student and even then he didn’t seem to believe me. (Wonder what he’d been smoking that night.) So, yeah, I think people are to gullible for their own good.

    • I remember the same sort of thing! When I was in junior high there was something just like that about… an alien invasion, I believe? I remember something about a code from space. At the time I thought it was really cool. But yeah, there was a disclaimer like every five minutes.

    • I remember the same sort of thing! When I was in junior high there was something just like that about… an alien invasion, I believe? I remember something about a code from space. At the time I thought it was really cool. But yeah, there was a disclaimer like every five minutes.

  4. It's always been my policy to use Wikipedia as a place to compile data, which I can then confirm as fact (or not) using a real source.

  5. It’s always been my policy to use Wikipedia as a place to compile data, which I can then confirm as fact (or not) using a real source.

  6. It's not just ordinary punters who fall for such stories on the Internet. There have been cases of "legitimate" news journalists citing articles from The Onion as fact. Thus, the foolishness compounds itself.

    • The guy who wrote the column is just one of many people working on the project. I think he may be part of IF as well. You know those academic types; they've got their hands in everything. :)

  7. It’s not just ordinary punters who fall for such stories on the Internet. There have been cases of “legitimate” news journalists citing articles from The Onion as fact. Thus, the foolishness compounds itself.

    • The guy who wrote the column is just one of many people working on the project. I think he may be part of IF as well. You know those academic types; they’ve got their hands in everything. :)

  8. I disagree with your classmate. The same way you can't believe everything you read in a book or newspaper (national inquirer, anyone?) you can't believe everything you find on the net. When I see something on TV or online that could affect me (let's say I had United stock, for example) I will double check with sources I know to be reliable before I jump off a building. That's just common sense.

    The same people that jumped the gun on the United thing are the same people that think that Bill Gates will send you money for each person you forward this email to.

  9. I disagree with your classmate. The same way you can't believe everything you read in a book or newspaper (national inquirer, anyone?) you can't believe everything you find on the net. When I see something on TV or online that could affect me (let's say I had United stock, for example) I will double check with sources I know to be reliable before I jump off a building. That's just common sense.

    The same people that jumped the gun on the United thing are the same people that think that Bill Gates will send you money for each person you forward this email to.